Key Issues and Challenges
The workshop evaluated the current status of environmental research in the SSA region. Researchers addressing SSA environmental issues are performing leading edge science and contributing much toward conceptual advances in several scientific fields. However the potential broad impact of much of this work is currently hindered by very limited interaction or collaboration among projects, programs, disciplines, and countries. There have been no efforts to develop a comprehensive approach to address regional and global environmental issues by enhancing cooperation and intellectual collaboration across disciplines, regions, and hierarchical levels. The workshop identified factors hindering strong and balanced intellectual collaboration between U.S. and SSA researchers and limiting progress in addressing key scientific questions. These include: a) lack of adequate infrastructure in SSA, including IT capacity, b) inadequate support for African research partners, c) a lack of sensitivity among the U.S. scientific community to the values and needs of African host countries and institutions for research that will directly address societal needs and provide policy-relevant information to their wider community, d) inadequate multi-disciplinary networking and integration of the social, biological, and physical sciences to address important issues, and e) weak cross- country collaborations among SSA scientists.
The workshop reached a consensual agreement that there is need for a more committed collaboration with SSA scientists and institutions, greater support for SSA participants, and for research to be conducted in a way that mutually enriches the knowledge base and societal needs of participating countries. Inadequate support for SSA collaborators, a lack of sensitivity to local values, and a lack of focus on the applicability of the research to the needs of SSA countries may impede the ability of the U.S. scientific community as a whole to conduct research in the SSA region. Collaborative scientific research in SSA must fully engage and support SSA participants as full partners, and must demonstrate that the research, in addition to meeting the criteria of scientific excellence, also will directly address regional societal needs and provide policy-relevant information to the wider community. This is more than a matter of being altruistic, but rather a fundamental strategic consideration. Failure to address it could have very undesirable and far-reaching consequences for U.S. research in SSA.
The majority of SSA's peoples are engaged in land-based livelihoods, and human community sustainability is much more directly linked to ecosystem health and environmental conservation in SSA than in many other regions. Much of the ecological research within SSA is driven principally by societal needs for sustainable, science-based resource management. Innovative research is needed to address the present disconnect between human needs and natural systems and their services. The wellbeing of peoples and of the earth's natural systems requires that our planning and actions be informed by investigations that bridge ecological and sociological components and take a complex systems view. Evaluation of these issues led to two important conclusions relevant to building strong and sustainable U.S.-SSA scientific collaboration.
1) Solving regional and global environmental problems in SSA requires multidisciplinary approaches that address linkages among biological, physical, and socio-economic components of the environment. Research on coupled human-natural systems (socioecological systems) is central. 2) A key to facilitating enhanced collaboration between the U.S. and the developing SSA region is the recognition among the U.S. scientific community that the direct value of the research in addressing key societal needs is of primary importance to African countries and a primary criterion for their support of research.
Other factors such as institutional disincentives, bureaucratic hurdles, cultural differences, and other regional socio-economic issues have also hindered progress. The HIV-AIDS epidemic currently represents a major barrier to capacity building within the region. The lack of networking and coordination among SSA countries also hinders progress in addressing important trans-boundary environmental issues such as water resources, animal population dynamics and management, invasive species, and effects of regional climate change. The lack of Internet resources and inadequate IT infrastructure in African institutions has resulted in many SSA researchers being essentially invisible to the broader international scientific community.